Christina Lustenberger in BC's backcountry

Christina Lustenberger’s Fine Line: From Ski Racer to Mountaineer

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Christina Lustenberger wakes up early. Whether she’s spending the day guiding backcountry ski clients, skiing for the cameras, grabbing fresh tracks at nearby Revelstoke Mountain Resort, or quietly climbing and skiing one of the many wilderness peaks on her wish list, things always start the same way: She wakes by 5:30 a.m., stokes the fire, makes coffee in a stovetop espresso pot, then settles in to study the snow and weather.

“She’s very focused,” says Bruno Long, a top mountain sports photographer and frequent ski companion. “She has a big skill set, and she spends a lot of time prepping and having stuff dialled so that when it’s time to go, she’s ready.”

Readiness, in fact, is essential to Lustenberger’s art—the art of tracing a fine line between risk and reward. And while many of us love soaring down snow-covered slopes amid majestic mountain wilds, Lustenberger—a born-and-bred British Columbian—is fuelled by that passion to a rare degree. “I just really love to ski,” she says with a laugh.

It’s an understatement. In the 11 years since she retired from the Canadian national ski team, the former giant slalom ace has transformed herself step by meticulous step into a highly skilled backcountry ski guide and big mountain pro. Now, at 35, the former World Cup and Olympic racer turned ski mountaineer stands not just at the top of super-steep mountain faces and knee-knocking couloirs but at a tipping point in her career.

Christina Lustenberger | Leo Hoorn

Before there was a career—with its film cameras, steep lines, backcountry clients, and first descents—there was an idea. And in a way the whole idea of Lustenberger’s life sprang from BC’s snow and mountains themselves.

Her parents met while working at heli-ski giant CMH Heli-Skiing & Summer Adventures‘ Monashee Lodge. They put skis on their two daughters’ feet as soon as the girls could walk. The girls chased each other around Panorama Mountain Resort while Mom and Dad ran Lusti’s, their slopeside ski shop and café.

At the family’s nearby home in Invermere, nestled between the BC Rockies and the Columbia Mountains, the living room window looked onto Mount Nelson, a striking 3,330-metre (10,870-foot) summit. While her mother read her a children’s book called Mountains of Tibet and Nelson loomed like a beacon, the littlest Lustenberger began to dream. What would it be like to adventure into such rugged, high peaks and ski them?

But ski racing, and the intense focus and discipline it demands, soon took over. By age 11, she was winning so many races (often beating boys and older girls in the process) that she was tapped to represent Canada at a competition in Europe. At 21, she was ranked 30th in the world in giant slalom, laying down course times fractions of a second off the fastest racers in the world, and with the promise of her potential yet to be fulfilled. In 2006, she competed in the Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

But the knee injuries kept coming. Between the ages of 16 and 24, Lustenberger had four reconstructive surgeries on her left knee, and one on her right. “It was heartbreaking,” she says.

Soon she started tapping her other ski dreams, the ones inspired less by giant slalom gates and more by the mountains of BC themselves. At home in the off season, she and some friends began adventuring in the snowy wilds of Jumbo Glacier. “The moment I started backcountry skiing, it relieved this pressure: OK, now I know what I’m going to do when I’m done ski racing.” Becoming a wilderness ski guide quietly became her new goal.

“What makes BC different from all the other places I’ve skied in the world is that there’s this vast wilderness,” Lustenberger says. “We have ranges on ranges, and they are all a little bit different. We have these huge mountains. We have glaciated peaks, gladed forests, deep valleys, big relief, and tons and tons of snow. There is so much to explore.”
In the backcountry | Leo Hoorn

In 2008, she took the leap, and told the Canadian national ski team she was retiring. She moved to Revelstoke to dive deep into big mountain freeriding and backcountry skiing, and began building her new skill set: Avalanche safety. Search and rescue. Wilderness first aid. Alpine climbing. Planning ski lines down technical, exposed steeps. “I shifted all that energy and motivation from ski racing into training to become a guide and learning the mountain craft.”

After four years of study, apprenticeship, and assistant guiding, Lustenberger earned her lead ski guide certification from ACMG (the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides). Her first work shift as a heli-ski guide? At CMH Monashee, the same lodge where her parents met.

Along the way, she began skiing for the cameras, picked up her first sponsors as a pro athlete, and spent every spare minute adventuring in the mountain wilds of BC. “She loves winter more than anybody else I know, really,” says Long. “She’s always trying to scheme up places to go ski.”

“What makes BC different from all the other places I’ve skied in the world is that there’s this vast wilderness,” Lustenberger says. “We have ranges on ranges, and they are all a little bit different. We have these huge mountains. We have glaciated peaks, gladed forests, deep valleys, big relief, and tons and tons of snow. There is so much to explore.”

Après-ski, though? Not so much. More like a high five in the parking lot before going home to dry out her gear, get warm, refuel, stretch, and plan the next day’s adventure. “Usually I’m pretty flattened in the evenings,” she says. “I’m skiing every day and I need that time to recover.”

Thanks to both that singular focus on getting out there day after day to tackle bold ski objectives and her beautifully fluid yet hard-charging ski style, Lustenberger’s pro skiing career soon began jostling for time with her guiding. The new balance allowed her, in 2016, to step away from mechanized ski guiding (meaning heli-skiing and cat-skiing) to focus on guiding human-powered ski touring (when skiers use special climbing skins under their skis to walk up the mountains they plan to descend) at Golden Alpine Holidays, Whitecap Alpine, and near Revelstoke.

“I think self-propelled skiing is one of the most rewarding ways of moving through the mountains,” she says. “A lot of people refer to it as being an artist with a blank canvas. You draw this beautiful track through the mountains, and ascend with the group that you’re guiding, or your friends. You’re moving in a quiet, peaceful atmosphere. The only thing you hear is laughter coming from conversations, or your heavy breathing. By the time you get to the top you feel so much joy and pride.”

As much as Lustenberger loves the ascent, the line back down is what gets her out of bed before dawn six days a week. When she skis with clients, she focuses on picking descents appropriate for their ability level, “opening this playground for them,” utilizing the best of her skill set to provide an experience of freedom, wonderment, and thrills no matter the clients’ expertise. But when she’s skiing for the cameras, it’s a different story altogether.

Taking in the view | Leo Hoorn

“You’re just waiting for the call on the radio to say ‘Cameras ready. Athlete Ready. Dropping in 10,'” she says. “And at 10, you’re fully committed. You have to push off that flat spot you’re standing on and dive into the steepness below you.” Beforehand, she will have studied the descent and its hazards. She will know where she must turn, where the safe zones are in case of avalanche, and where she can open things up and fly like the wind.

“Performing at such an intense level during a rush like that is pretty unique,” she says. “You come out at the end of it, super fast onto the flats, and look back, and that’s when you can really fully smile in your body. Your heart’s still racing. You’re trying to catch your breath. Your legs are pounding because you’ve just skied a huge face, and you are just so excited and relieved. A lot of times you just want to get back up there and do it again because it was so much fun. It’s one of those exhilarating life moments. You wish it could last forever.”

These days, Lustenberger is at another turning point in her career, with global opportunities arising in partnership with her sponsors to participate in far-flung expeditions as a ski mountaineer. Up next: A big adventure in the Himalayas with a team from The North Face—followed by another rich winter right here at home.

She’s equally excited about both. Her mother recently pulled out the Mountains of Tibet, the book that ignited her dreams early on. In one sense, it’s hard to believe a childhood dream inspired by a picture book is coming to life—but with so much dedication and passion, with her early-to-bed and early-to-rise philosophy, with the landscape of BC thrumming through her soul, it also makes perfect sense. Her wish list still holds countless summits, challenges, and routes to ski here at home—in fact, the list keeps growing—but there’s plenty of time. “Here in BC, the peaks go on and on forever. Just as you think you’re seen it all, you turn another corner and there’s another lifetime of mountains to explore.”

Video header: Leo Hoorn

Photo header: Leo Hoorn

Revelstoke Mountain Resort in the Selkirks | Andrew Strain


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